One of Austin’s oldest homes has made Preservation Texas’ annual Most Endangered Places list.
An 1853 house tucked among new UT development is a rare surviving antebellum residence in central Austin. Originally built by Margaret Neville Bowie, widow of Rezin Bowie (inventor of the Bowie knife), the house — alternately called the Bowie-Watson House, the Watson House, or the Watson Chateau — has been owned by several prominent Austinites over the decades.
Preservation Texas’ annual list spotlights imperiled historic places across Texas that are threatened by neglect, demolition, inappropriate alteration, or a radical loss of context.
The 1853 Watson House is out of sight — and running out of time
Local organization Preservation Austin has been working with a group of advocates to build awareness of the property to ensure its preservation, focusing on the property’s LGBTQ legacy.
Its last private owner was interior designer Arthur Pope Watson, who purchased the property in 1959 and shared the home with his partner Robert Wayne Garrett. Although they were not leaders of the gay activist movement, the home Watson and Garrett created, and the many parties they hosted together, served as a space for gay men.
In the late 1960s, the University of Texas acquired the house through eminent domain. Although Watson and Garrett continued living in the house until Watson’s death in 1993, it has been dwarfed and hidden from public view by surrounding new construction, notably the new Dell Medical School which is planned to anchor the future UT Austin Medical District.
“So many historic LGBTQ spaces remain uninterpreted at best, and threatened at worst,” said Lindsey Derrington, Preservation Austin’s Executive Director. “With the Watson Chateau, the University of Texas at Austin has an incredible opportunity to invest in this history and foster connections for students by affirming and honoring this community’s story.”
Independent researcher Marta Stefaniuk, whose research on the house resulted in an online project hosted by the city of Austin, says the Watson “has the rare ability of bringing to light the under told history of the LGBTQ community, African Americans, and early female settlers of Austin. Additionally, tendrils from the home’s various owners fan out to hundreds of significant local and Texas historic moments and people. By saving the Watson Chateau and repurposing it creatively, it could become a connector between east and west Austin, old and new Austin, and a jewel in the University of Texas’s holdings.”
I remember at the time of the 2017 articles, thinking that the gay history aspect might save it, if it were pressed. Indeed, I think I made such a reference, however cynically, in letters to UT and the city. I rather thought it had been demoed by now. My outrage having cooled I don’t know that the world particularly needs that vintage house but an obvious point: restoring it – even (re)inventively, and not slavishly – could be a cool hands-on laboratory for UT architecture students. Probably more so than whatever is the popular contest they enter these days, printing a tiny house or building the coolest solar powered bus station or solving whatever social problem currently captivates the academic architecture world.
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